PJ20: A Pilgrimage to Find the Pearl Jam Community
On September 2, 2011, I embarked upon a trip with a long time friend with the hopes of finding something special within the obsession that made me feel complete. Prior to PJ20 weekend, I had a total of five Pearl Jam live experiences under my belt with four of them taking place in or around my local area. In 2009, I traveled to Chicago to see them, but that was the extent of my excursions.
Trekking out to East Troy, Wisconsin for such an important event had me excited for a weekend celebrating my favorite band in the world, but while the goal on the outside was to seemingly hear every song on my long list of collector’s items, on the interior, my goal was to make friends with the like minded community who was making the same trek for essentially the same reasons.
(If you want my story about PJ20 as a concert, or even as an experience, this story isn’t quite that. I did enough whining and complaining about setlists and food issues on this week’s podcast.)
Community was a weird concept to me for a long time. Most people seem to sense that your community is within your home, your local residential area. While I don’t disagree and believe that you do need to find some semblance of community within your hometown, there is still a grey area there. Not everyone is going to have a unique connection to one another just because they grew up in Islip, New York.
All it means is that you will find yourselves at similar grocery stores, pharmacies, little red delis, bars, school functions and the obnoxiously long line at Bagel Boss every Sunday morning, where you may end up seeing something like this go down (yes, that is in fact my hometown bagel place. Nope, not proud).
But whether you’re a boss or a father or, shit, perhaps even God, you likely wouldn’t be able to connect with somebody on a deep, emotional level due to where you live. Hell, I’ve seen neighbors and friends’ parents walking around town before and have managed to avoid the old Uncle Leo hello.
While you may share a similar sense of pride or even concern about your stomping grounds, you’ll never likely find your true core group of confidants like you do within this community. Which is why what I’ll mention right here may shock you. I traveled to the midwest for this festival alongside my long time friend, Steve Maytan, who believe it or not, grew up in that exact same town as I did – Islip, New York. You may have heard his name from a podcast episode or two, and if the name Matt Helbig rings a bell from the earliest days of Live On 4 Legs, that would be his younger half-sibling. While they may be blood related, I’ve always been treated as a brother of theirs, which is why Pearl Jam is so important to me to begin with.
I have a clear memory of being at the Helbig/Maytan residence in 2006 when Steve arrived home after a long weekend in San Francisco witnessing the band play two of their three nights at the Bill Graham Auditorium. Seeing him talk about the shows and how amazing the experience was, I knew that was what I wanted to experience. To find a community of people that I could bond with – not necessarily over Pearl Jam per say – but over something that we all had an extreme emotional connection to. At PJ20, I was finally getting a glimpse of this world that Steve had spoken so highly of.
I mentioned emotional connections and really what I mean by that is emotional connections through music. Sure, other fandoms can elicit emotional connections. If you’re a New York Jets fan, you can find like minded people who seem to get off on a franchise emotionally tormenting them year in and year out. But not every football fan is going to share the same levels of passion, or have the ability to even handle their emotions. After years of watching and covering football for multiple outlets, I still don’t understand why people destroy their televisions after devastating losses. You never lost anything. You made a choice to put your rooting interest behind something that has a 50/50 outcome (ugh, the NFL still has ties. Fuck ties, though) which means you have to be able to accept one outcome just as much as you’re able to accept the other.
Where am I going with this? Well, at one point I sought sports to be some sort of a community, but seeing how people behave after witnessing an outcome they weren’t in control of, I could not find myself connecting with them on any sort of level aside from kind of agreeing that cheering for a team that loses kind of sucks. And anyone who knows me and knows how my days are structured based on what time the New York Mets play… yeah, nobody is perfect. Baseball fandom is another conversation for another time.
The nice thing about music is that there are no losers. There are technically no winners either, but there is a feeling of victory that you get after you sing along to every single lyric of your favorite song that you’ve been listening to for over 20 years. The loud songs that you used to put on at full blast in your room after arguing with your parents, the sad songs you played when you found out that your crush is into someone else more than she’s into you, the weird songs that you may have once or twice used recreational drugs to enhance your listening experience. Whether you recognize it or not, all these moments come back in such a powerful way when you hear them played live. And then when you’re in the moment, if you look around for 5 or 10 seconds, you’ll see a few hundred, possibly thousand people that were just like you at one point. The smiles when the house lights go on are shared and the positivity is contagious. You just saw your favorite band do what they do best, and your singing and clapping contributed to THEIR positive experience of the night. It’s one of those weird sensations where if the band felt like they won, it was because you caught their touchdown pass. And sometimes it’s you who loops up the alley-oop to set them up for the dunk. Jordan and Pippen would be jealous of this lethal combination.
Here’s the thing, I was no stranger to music communities at the time. I had been a part of one during my high school and college years. In the early 2000’s the Long Island music scene was pretty split. If you remember the emo genre and how that split off into other sub-genres with its namesake such as “screamo” or “emocore”, a lot of bands that gained notoriety at the time, mainly getting noticed on stages such as the Warped Tour, had derived out of Nassau or Suffolk county. You may remember the names of some of these bands, but probably haven’t heard anything from them in over 15 years – Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, The Movie Life, Glassjaw, From Autumn To Ashes – it all came from Long Island and almost none of it aged well. Now let me be clear here, the emocore thing was not my scene at all. I will admit that I found Taking Back Sunday catchy at times, but the overall sense I got from being around people who were ingrained in this community was that it established a bro culture mixed in with a teeny bopper phenomenon. I couldn’t relate to that and I found myself for the most part not getting along with the people who could. So what was on the other side of the Long Island scene that did capture my attention?
Okay, roll your eyes. Maybe I deserve that. But don’t hate on ska too much. As a teenager surrounded by music seemingly for kids attached to other kids screaming… umm… infidelities, I was looking for a scene that brought the best out of people and an upbeat sound easy to smile and dance to. I stumbled upon the scene almost accidentally as I attended a comedy show featuring Jackass’s Steve-O (with special guests, the now deceased Ryan Dunn and Wee Man) at a local venue that was considered the scene’s homebase called The Downtown. A local band called the Arrogant Sons Of Bitches played as the opening act, and while I hadn’t heard of them before, the minute they began their set all 400 people in attendance rushed to the front of the stage moving like an ocean in high tide. The energy in the club was infectious, and although the music was maybe a bit raw and juvenile, that’s exactly what I was looking for when I was 16.
So I started following ASOB around to The Downtown and other Long Island venues, which caught me onto other ska/punk bands such as the High School Football Heroes, The Fad, Sprout, 32 Degrees In Hell and Patent Pending, the latter of which would end up playing in my backyard one time on a whim for a crisp $20 bill. Every show seemingly had the same supporting cast and drew the same loyal fans night in and night out. After a while you’d see all of the familiar faces who you’d either made friends with or at the very least knew their names and knew someone who knew them. It was such a fun, niche community, especially surrounding The Downtown, which was like Madison Square Garden to a 16 year old. It wasn’t even just the local bands that had you going back consistently, it was other popular ska bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, Streetlight Manifesto, and The Toasters who would frequent the venue. Sometimes the place would be sold out, other times it would feel so intimate that it was like a backyard party. At one Toasters show, I seem to remember the band playing for upwards of 3 hours to an audience of about 30 extremely close friends. It felt like magic that night.
Good things sometimes have to come to an end, and unfortunately with The Downtown closing its doors in the fall of 2005, the scene started to slowly dissipate as well. Long Island promoters no longer wanted to be responsible for ticket sales, asking bands for money up front leaving them responsible for selling their own tickets. My high school band ran into that problem constantly with The Downtown and one time it cost us a chance to open up for well-traveled 80’s punk band, The Exploited. It was a near impossible task to convince your friends who watched you play in basements and backyards to pay $10-$20 two months ahead of time to see you play a 20 minute set in front of 15 people, and if they did it once, then you’d have to convince them to do it again and again in order not to lose any money. As this article about the venue’s closing states, you can’t keep inviting people to a tupperware party expecting the same result. Bands would find other places to play, but I found myself drifting away into other interests.
Most of the bands that I listed above were relics of their era and none of them achieved much commercial success. The most recent success story has been former Arrogant Sons Of Bitches frontman Jeff Rosenstock, who’s solo career received high praise from music pundits during the pandemic. Even his 2020 pop-punk release No Dream was recreated as a ska record this past year entitled Ska Dream proving that you can take the artist out of the scene, but you can’t take the scene out of the artist.
That takes us to about a six-year time jump. I’m a week away from my 25th birthday, I have a job that works me long hours for mediocre wages and I receive almost no time off to go to concerts, let alone travel for them. The people that I worked with didn’t listen to Pearl Jam, and if they did, then they wouldn’t understand the idea of traveling halfway across the country to see them in the middle of nowhere. So to say that my fandom was misunderstood would be a bit of an understatement. I needed this trip and I needed to feel like I was around my people.
It started right away from what I remember. On the flight to Chicago that Friday, we saw people boarding wearing Pearl Jam shirts, high-fiving each other going down the aisle. I remember Steve specifically making sure we rented a car with SiriusXM so we could listen to Pearl Jam Radio, a fairly new station at the time, on the entire ride there. The first song that hit when we got in the car was Hail, Hail, and both of us in a state of pure excitement banged our heads as if it were a scene in Wayne’s World. I actually remember approaching a Yield sign, which of course on a big Pearl Jam weekend needs to be acknowledged along with a cringey dad joke (Yield! It’s a sign!). We spent the Friday afternoon in the bleachers at Wrigley Field and once again, found more Pearl Jam people. Now these people never became lifelong friends or anything, but knowing that we were all there for the same reason bonded us for the short amount of time we spent together. I remember meeting with two people from Nebraska and ended up catching up with them again on night 2. That was likely the first time I had ever met someone from Nebraska. Our lives were probably so different, but to know that we had the same love for this band garnered a mutual respect. We probably talked for 20 minutes, but I bet if I ever met with them again, we’d pick up right where we left off.
Now in reality, it’s not like every person I met that weekend became an instant friend. That would be rather miraculous. It was that the friends that I already had I was officially bonded with for life. I’d like to introduce my friend Sibel into the story. She was a long time friend of Steve’s who had traveled with him to multiple shows over the years. I got to meet her in Chicago and then later on the 2010 tour in NYC, but it wasn’t anything more than grabbing a drink in a big group before a show. She joined us in Wisconsin, and by her memory, we stayed at a Super 8 in Delavan. It was a bit rural, I won’t use any “derogatory” words to explain what kind of area it was, but when we saw a stickman window sticker on a full sized pickup truck, we knew exactly where we were. Add to the fact that Wal-Mart basically sold rifles at the front counter, yeah, this was uncharted territory for me.
Many who follow the band around the country in large groups usually have a few people who kind of rough it, but it’s always good to have the one person who’s grounded and makes sure you are prepared for everything that might happen outside of the music. That has always been Sibel. She made sure that everyone had their ponchos as an impending storm attempted to put a damper on our dream weekend. Anything that we needed to be prepared for she was on top of. If you have heard the phrase “Pearl Jam mom” before, it’s applicable here.
The whole entire weekend felt like we were seeing friends we just hadn’t met. Whether you are a social butterfly or a little bit anti-social (I’ve always found myself somewhere in between) being at the shows always puts you in a good position to mingle with people if you decide to do so. There’s a major difference between a show like this and a show in Hartford’s XL Center. You never know how passionate people are when you walk into an arena setting. Hell, my favorite Buffalo 2013 story is when I started a conversation with the guy next to me who considered himself a “big fan”. When they opened with Pendulum, I leaned over and made a comment saying it looks like they were opening with a new track. Two songs later, they play Sometimes, he leans over to me and says wow, another new song! So… yeah, you can’t assume that everyone there is going to share the same knowledge as you do.
At Alpine Valley however? There wasn’t a casual fan in the bunch. Maybe there were people that were making a trek to see them for the first time, like two guys we met on the lawn during night 1 who flew up from San Antonio, a place Pearl Jam has never played. Watching them during Release and seeing them experience a similar moment that I had been through 3 years earlier when I saw my first PJ song live, it was like seeing the circle of life happen in a way. The torch had been passed, these kids could have their memorable moment and go back down to Texas with the thrill of their life. These are the kind of connections you make from an experience like this. I will never see them again, but I’ll always remember the look on their faces when they realized the significance of the moment they were in.
I don’t have a whole lot more to expand on within the whole idea of community, at least not from that weekend. But if that trip made me realize anything, it’s that I was right all along. When family members or friends questioned my decision to follow this band around for multiple shows remarking “isn’t once enough?” I couldn’t help but doubt my own decision making due to the dissatisfaction of people I respected. But none of that mattered. Because in that moment I felt like I was a part of something greater than myself, but in a way I had also helped it reach that potential. Everyone who was there did their part, from the woman who bought the hoodie with the incorrect state and date on it to the guy who painted an avocado on his head, to all of the people who sat in line waiting and hoping that a poster would still be there, to the talented artists spending all of day two spray painting a billboard – everyone had a role to make this weekend special.
As I sit here ten years later, I like to believe I have become the fan I have always set out to be. This group goes above and beyond for each other. Whether it’s doing something like finding a ticket for a friend or gifting someone a piece of merch that they’d been seeking for ages, people seem so eager to go to bat for each other in this community. If it weren’t for this band, there may not be people who have found their soulmates. If it weren’t for this band, there may not be a young musician who needs funding to chase their dream and have a fundraiser held for them. If it wasn’t for this band, I’d have no idea what I’d even say sometimes. The PJ20 weekend was so vital to understanding my love of all things Pearl Jam that I truly believe if it weren’t for those days, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with a podcast and website fully dedicated to celebrating the band’s history. If this is all that I have to give to the community, it’s a small piece, but I am just thrilled to have done my part.